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Arriving at this tucked away spot along Roscoe Road gives the feeling you have discovered a hidden gem in North Florida’s dining scene. A lengthy line of patrons eagerly awaiting a table will quickly remind you that this secret has spread quickly. Call in a reservation, and you’ll be golden.

The interior features soothing pastels, large windows that draw abundant natural lighting and a simple open layout that allows for gazing at the intracoastal waterway. This comfortable, laid-back atmosphere blends seamlessly with a menu that focuses on using simple ingredients to concoct complex flavor combinations at reasonable prices. The result is quintessential Ponte Vedra: a refined personification of traditional Coastal Florida cuisine infused with influences of the traditional farming roots of Palm Valley and a reliance on ingredients like the datil pepper.

The specials are carefully written across a blackboard in colored chalk, and several vie for attention. The fried artichoke hearts with a creamy lemony aioli and lemon wedge are a must; bite-sized with a light cornmeal crust and sprinkled generously with shaved parmesan, they're light enough not to ruin your appetite for dinner.

The grilled octopus and white bean salad with a slightly spicy but not overwhelming datil pepper vinaigrette is a flavor and texture explosion: Chewy, warm pieces of seasoned octopus contrast the creamy oversized white beans served atop mixed greens, colorful julienned carrots and chunks of tomato. If you’ve never had octopus, I urge you to give it a try. The Asian-inspired chopped tuna salad combines almond slivers, tomato, black sesame seeds and chopped seared ahi tuna drizzled with spicy Siracha and wasabi.

The pan-fried cod sandwich is a big piece of fresh flaky white fish resting between thick tomato slices, crisp lettuce and a toasted hoagie roll accompanied by a light turnip slaw and pile of seasoned wedge fries, which I enjoy dousing with tangy malt …   More

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A Beaches-must, Cinotti’s Bakery (1523 Penman Road, Jax Beach, 246-1728) is a fifth-generation bakery, dating back more than 65 years, arriving in Northeast Florida in 1964. Old-timers can recall its First Avenue North location, steps from the ocean. With über-popular seasonal pumpkin, maple bacon, coffee and key lime donuts, the "new" Penman Road spot serves other bakery confections and deli sandwiches on freshly baked bread. Cinotti’s cases are overflowing with trays of cookies, pastries, cupcakes and chocolate truffles. Grab a decadent donut or two and a cup of coffee — and a box of assorted goodies to keep your home team happy.

Minutes from the beach is the wildly popular TacoLu (1712 Beach Blvd., Jax Beach, 249-8226), which locals quickly dubbed “NuLu” after a recent relocation. The larger ’Lu, with additional parking and valet service, has an expanded bar area and an outdoor patio with seating for 40, complete with a colorful mural on the building's side, painted by local artist Jessica Becker. You can feel full after just looking at the menu of quesadillas, enchiladas, salads and tacos. The bangin’ shrimp taco is most popular, but the carne royale — carne asada with melted brie and grape salsa — is uniquely delicious. A relatively new weekend brunch service helps fans forgive that the ’Lu is closed on Mondays. Well, that and the impressive 120-plus choices of tequila. Even the sour mix is made in-house, with fresh-squeezed citrus and homemade simple syrup. Margarita, anyone?

For a healthful breakfast or lunch, look for the bee. At Delicomb (1131 Third St. N., Jax Beach, 372-4192), within walking distance from the beach, you’ll find menu standouts like strong iced coffee, antioxidant-packed acai bowls, vegan tempeh Reubens and spicy kim chi.

Often crowded with seafood lovers, Sliders Seafood Grille (218 First St., Neptune Beach, 246-0881) provides a relaxed atmosphere that's …   More

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It sat vacant for quite some time, so I was thrilled to hear that a San Marco storefront would soon be a source for buttery biscuits. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a hot, flaky, not-too-doughy-but-still-delightful biscuit?

The new space feels much more warm, cozy and inviting than it did with the two previous inhabitants (The Black Bean, Moe’s), with the addition of wood panels to the open layout, calming colors and a self-service coffee area. Faux chalkboard menus sport a list of all things biscuit-like. And how do you know your order is ready? They yell out the name of your favorite band or favorite childhood TV show — nuggets of your life revealed when you ordered.

On my first visit, I quickly loosened my waistband and ordered The Loaded Goat (with fried chicken breast and a fried goat cheese medallion) and The Sticky Maple (with fried chicken breast, pecan bacon topped with real maple syrup) and two sides that piqued my interest: grits and Smoky Mountain Mac-N-Cheese.
 The signature biscuit sandwiches range from $4 to $7 and are filling. Sauces and other sides (sweet potato fries, collards, black-eyed peas, salad, pepper jelly, butter, cheese, honey, apple butter, maple syrup, etc.) are additional. And for you true Southerners, I hear the sausage gravy is to die for.

The biscuits were good, but not overly fluffy. They were sturdy enough to support the generous piece of moist fried chicken, which wasn’t the slightest bit greasy. The creamy melted goat cheese edged out the Sticky Maple. The Mac-N-Cheese was decent and I enjoyed my creamy grits, which I doused with Louisiana hot sauce.

On my second visit, I went simple: a biscuit with seasonal pumpkin butter and a coffee. Of the several varieties offered, I preferred the slightly sweet Maple Tap coffee, roasted specially for the restaurant. My biscuit was flaky and delicious, and the pumpkin butter had tons of flavor.

Maple Street’s hours of operation …   More

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How can you not love a restaurant that shares its name with a delicious dessert made from three different milks?

Owners Eddie and Irene Sweda opened Tres Leches at the corner of Stockton and Myra streets in historic Riverside eight months ago, after relocating from Springfield.

Selling more than just sweets, Tres Leches is open for breakfast, lunch and a light dinner. The Swedas' passion for creating good food is contagious, and Irene Sweda's tried-and-true Venezuelan recipes are made from scratch.

One standout that I haven't had anywhere else in Northeast Florida is the arepa: a round hand-held corn cake that encases your choice of fixings. I've found that butter, black beans and queso blanco make for a nice light breakfast or lunch. It's a bit messy, but the outer corn cake proves sturdy enough to support the fillings. (Insider tip: You can order breakfast items like egg and cheese as fillings.) Wash it down with Tres Leches' freshly made House Lime-n-ade that's refreshing and not too sweet.

The menu features pastries, quiches, artisan breads, sandwiches, cakes and homemade soups. I stumbled upon something on my last visit that's worth sharing: On the third Saturday of each month, Tres Leches offers a $15 three-course brunch, with a choice of coffee, tea or fresh-squeezed orange juice (with complimentary refills).

I tried the brunch recently and was impressed. First up was a spreadable Mediterranean mousse with a stack of crisp crostini. The mousse reminded me of a Greek-inspired, five-layer dip that had been blended together. The feta, olives, onion, cucumber, yellow squash, sun-dried tomatoes, peppers and spices fused perfectly.

From the three entrée options, I chose the asparagus, leek and gruyere quiche, but I also snagged a few bites of the tuna and orzo salad. The tuna, flown in from the West Coast, was fresh and flavorful. Full from the first two courses, I was pleasantly surprised by the simplicity of the dessert: A trio of lemon …   More

BITE-SIZED

Stop at 5th Element (9485 Baymeadows Road, 448-8265) or India’s Restaurant (9802 Baymeadows Road, Ste. 8, 620-0777) for a bountiful Indian buffet lunch. With items ranging from vegetarian dishes to lamb and goat, and mild to extremely spicy, experiment with a small helping of everything. Scoop up your sag paneer or channa masala with a few wedges of warm Indian flatbread called naan. It’s cooked in a tandoor (clay oven). India’s, voted best Indian food in Jacksonville by Folio Weekly readers, has a more open, light, modern atmosphere than 5th Element (a former Village Inn), but the 5th's buffet is easily three, if not four, times larger and more diverse than India’s. Load up on India’s crispy vegetable pakora fritters if they have them. Delicious!

Authentic Vietnamese noodle house Bowl of Pho (9902 Old Baymeadows Road, 646-4455) is immaculate and cozy, and there’s always a good crowd, especially during the lunch hour. The portions are as large as the menu is long. Try the mi hoanh than, or BBQ pork and wonton egg noodle soup; add in a fistful of items served alongside it, like raw jalapeno slices, saw-leaf herb (flavor similar to cilantro but stronger), fragrant Thai basil, crunchy bean sprouts, chopped green onion and cilantro. Pronounced “fuh,” not “foe,” pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup that traditionally contains beef broth and rice noodles along with varieties of meat including rare beef, beef flank, brisket, tendon (connective tissue that’s cooked for a long time at a slow temperature, which becomes pliable and gelatinous like beef fat), tripe (stomach of a domesticated animal) and meatballs. If you’ve never had Vietnamese cuisine, try a boba milk smoothie, which has chewy black tapioca pearls in the bottom, to be slurped up in a thick, colorful straw. Taro, avocado and honeydew are popular flavors.

Less than a mile apart, Thai spots Pattaya Thai (9551 Baymeadows Road, Ste. 1, …   More

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There’s good pizza, and there’s bad pizza. Brewer’s Pizza is a gem, tucked away just off I-10 in Orange Park. Home of the Florida Smacker, a “Lip-smack’n Southern style pizza,” it's Brewer’s signature 8-inch square, deep-dish pizza with melted cheese that extends to the crispy edges of the beer-dough crust. Dipped in ranch or a side of marinara, it's a pizza-lover’s dream and some of Northeast Florida’s best. The corners are crunchy, but the center of the crust is light and chewy.

If you’re not in the mood for a deep-dish pizza, opt for the hand-tossed pizza. Both are excellent. Regular topping choices include green peppers, banana peppers, pepperoncini, jalapeños, mushrooms, black or green olives, tomatoes, white or red onions, pepperoni, ham, bacon, Italian sausage, ground sirloin, mozzarella, garlic and pineapple. Specialty toppings are gyro meat, meatball, chicken, ricotta, Romano, feta and cheddar.

Can’t decide? Remove the guesswork and order one of Brewer’s specialty pies. Available in Florida Smacker style or round, there’s Buffalo Chicken (mozzarella, chicken, bacon, green pepper and buffalo sauce), Swamp Chicken (mozzarella, homemade swamp sauce — not pizza sauce — plus gator tail, chicken, tomato and Cajun crust), and the clever Seafaring Pig (mozzarella, homemade seafood sauce, shrimp, crab, bacon, mushroom, tomato and chives).

In addition to salads, soup and a calzone, there are several Boar’s Head sandwiches available on Mamaw’s 8-inch toasted sub roll or a wrap — with Brewer’s world-famous Pinglehead sandwich spread.

We also ordered Guido Spoonpipe’s wings — available in plain, BBQ, sweet BBQ, mild and hot — which are lightly breaded and brushed with buffalo sauce then baked in a pizza convection oven, instead of being fried. We ordered them mild, and a pile of 10 plump wings arrived accompanied by a …   More

BITE-SIZED

Olio Chef Greg DeSanto has carved out a culinary niche nestled in a hip space within the historic J.H. Churchwell building in Jacksonville’s urban core.

DeSanto’s kitchen creativity places emphasis on fresh, local ingredients, offering seasonal items in addition to Olio’s popular static menu.

For spring, several new, hunger-inducing items have appeared: cold gazpacho soup, duck wonton soup, tuna steak sandwich with carrot and fennel salad on ciabatta, housemade chicken and foie gras boudin blanc, a skirt steak bahn mi with spicy Sriracha aioli; a Monte Cristo with blackberry jam, pork belly and fried egg on ciabatta and a ground lamb burger. May I just have one of everything?

New items aside, I have some tried-and-true favorites. I’ll let you in on a secret: Olio’s fish tacos are some of the best in town. Two soft flour tortillas are piled with thick slabs of moist, blackened fish topped with a mandarin orange fruit salsa, crunchy cabbage and a cilantro-lime crème drizzle. If fish doesn’t strike your fancy, you can swap it with chicken, shrimp or carnitas instead.

Don’t eat meat? The popular falafel wrap features housemade pickles, crisp Romaine lettuce, creamy red pepper coulis and chickpea patties snuggled in a warm naan blanket.

All of Olio’s side items are a la carte. Regulars enjoy the homemade French fries and thick-cut potato chips, both served with a creamy basil aioli. Rotating sides include crispy dill potatoes, mushroom risotto, orzo salad, zucchini fries, Mediterranean couscous, mac ‘n’ cheese, three-grain salad and hummus with pita chips.

Olio also offers a wide range of deep-dish quiches: steak and bleu cheese, quiche Lorraine, chicken and bacon, mushroom, three-cheese, ham and Swiss, and smoked chicken with asparagus.

DeSanto’s popularity index shot up last year when The Travel Channel’s Adam Richman from “Man vs. Food” stopped in. …   More

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It's no secret that I eat most of my meals in restaurants. It's convenient, I don't have to do dishes 
 and I can seek creative culinary offerings when the mood strikes. (Also, kinda my job.) Over the last year, I've had a lot of memorable meals. Here are a few of my favorite crave-worthy items from 2013:

Favorite breakfast treat: Tomato pie (Bold Bean Coffee Roasters, Riverside)

This savory, handheld quiche-like pie makes getting out of bed 100 percent worth it: buttery, flaky pie crust houses a blend of egg and cheese, thin slices of tomato (both green and red), cooked onion and a generous dusting of cracked black pepper.

Favorite salad: Greek kale salad (Native Sun Natural Foods Market, Baymeadows and Mandarin)

Organic kale tossed with homemade Greek dressing, pepperoncini, chunks of crumbly feta, salty kalamata olives, diced artichoke hearts and — in my version — hold the red onion, add chickpeas. There's something about the tangy dressing with this assortment of toppings that makes this salad shine.

Favorite soup (tie): Barley ash (Green Erth Bistro, San Marco) and BBQ pork and wonton pho 
(Bowl of Pho, Southside)

These two soups couldn't be less alike, but I love them equally. The first is a thick Persian number overflowing with barley, beans and herbs and bursting with flavor. The pho is brothy, stocked with thin tangled egg noodles and pork-stuffed wontons, and quite comforting on a cold day.

Favorite lunch: Bruschetta (French Pantry, Southside)

Possibly the longest line I'll wait in for a meal, let alone lunch, is at French Pantry. Thick, house-baked crusty bread is generously buttered then topped with shrimp, artichoke hearts and

rich goat cheese, served with a heaping mound of balsamic and basil diced tomatoes atop a bed of mixed greens. Go now to get in line.

Favorite seafood: Raw oysters (Cap's on the Water, St. Augustine)

Plump raw oysters served on the half-shell with cocktail sauce, mignonette, lemon wedges …   More

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Ever thought about slowing down a bit?

If you have, you're in luck. On May 2, the fourth annual Slow Down event at Intuition Ale Works will feature at least 26 local restaurants and artisans. For $20, attendees can feast upon dishes crafted by these restaurants and artisans (see sidebar) that focus on locally grown and sourced ingredients. (One hundred percent of proceeds go to Slow Food First Coast.)

In addition to local nibbles, there will be cold craft beer, music and plenty of socializing — but perhaps most important is the awareness being raised.

"Slow Food is important because it is an educating organization," says Kurt D'Aurizio, director of events at Slow Food First Coast. "By spreading the word about foods, farmers, restaurants and artisans who are preserving our food heritage, Slow Food allows us all to learn, make educated choices and be part of the future of our food system. I began working with Slow Food years ago as a chef because my food philosophy matched their vision: local, quality, artisan and heritage — good, clean and fair food for all."

Slow Food First Coast is one of 255 Slow Food USA chapters. Each aims to strengthen the connection between the health of our planet and the food we see on our plates by celebrating foods that are local, seasonal and sustainably grown. The nonprofit touts nutritious food that is beneficial for both our bodies and the planet.

Slow Food USA was founded to counteract the prevailing fast-food lifestyle, and its adherents believe we should consciously embrace where our food comes from, who makes it, how it's made and how it's transported. We should also be aware of how our food is produced, and how it impacts the environment and animal welfare — as well as our own health.

"All of the participants are locally owned food businesses that make it a priority to support local artisans and farmers," says event producer Cari Sanchez-Potter. "The Slow Down celebrates their commitment to fostering our …   More

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Tucked right inside the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, Café Nola is a delightful modern bistro situated next to the Main Library and across the street from Hemming Plaza.

Executive Chef Kathy Collins takes great pride in sourcing fresh ingredients — even using herbs grown on the building's rooftop garden.

Café Nola, outfitted in clean white and green hues, boasts an open kitchen and a modern interior with extra high ceilings and natural light. I suggest snagging a seat by the windows facing Hemming Plaza.

On a recent dinner visit during the One Spark festival, we started with sweet potato nachos, which proved to be a unique twist on traditional nachos. The base was a generous heap of thinly cut, crispy sweet potato chips topped with a creamy and rich bleu cheese sauce, sliced scallions, salty applewood-smoked bacon and sweet and tangy balsamic reduction. I stopped short of licking the plate.

The spring lobster gnocchi was lighter than I would have imagined, but still filling. The homemade potato gnocchi were soft and delicate, paired with crisp sautéed haricot verts and halved grape tomatoes, steamed Maine lobster pieces swimming peacefully together in a corn jus — a perfect spring dish.

The varied menu includes popular entrées such as a mac 'n' cheese with black truffle shavings, goat cheese, wild mushrooms and roasted chicken — served in a cast-iron pan. Another favorite, shrimp and grits, features plump shrimp in a creamy white wine and mushroom sauce with applewood bacon atop firm smoked cheddar grit cakes. It's served with a sun-dried tomato crostini, but I'm always too full to indulge.

For lighter fare, try one of the flavorful salads. There's a Caesar with a black truffle butter-basted local fried egg (say that three times fast); a Cobb with fresh steamed Maine lobster, asparagus and blueberries; and a warm calamari and artichoke salad with roasted pepper vinaigrette over fresh baby …   More

 
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